It was a number of years back, maybe the last time I made it to this august Institute. I had driven up here with Dr. Lee Maxwell, whose writings (by the way) remain quite influential to me on the topic of this particular workshop. But being the dingbat that I am (I prefer to think of myself as the absent minded scholar…), I had made reservations at a hotel, but not bothered to write down or remember the NAME of the hotel. So we stopped at that one right by the University only to discover they weren’t expecting us and there was no room in the Inn. So a little befuddled and explaining to Lee that we’d surely find the right place before long I pulled out. and we drove for a bit. It was dusk. Then I noticed the most peculiar thing. “Lee!” said I. “Would you look at that! They have hung those traffic lights backwards. Is that weird or what?” To which Lee very excitedly responded: “They are not hung backwards, you idiot. You’ve turned the wrong way on a divided highway!” At which point we quickly crossed the median and, well, as there was no cop in sight and we were still living and breathing, all was well. Well, except for Lee swearing never to take another trip with me behind the wheel - a promise he has kept, by the way, for the last decade and more. Why bring up this ancient happening? Well because sometimes, sometimes there are signs, little hints, that things aren’t well, and we can either happily move along pretending all is still honkey dorey, or we might want to do some self-analysis and see if at some point we might have had a wrong turning.
So it was, of course, as a result of the Second Vatican Council that our Roman brothers and sisters began a reform of the liturgy. The Mass was put into the Vernacular. Various Eucharistic canons were provided to stand alongside the ancient Roman canon. But most striking, the lectionary was revised. For perhaps a thousand years plus, the system of readings for the Sunday Masses had been relatively fixed (with some regional displacements). The reading from the Old Testament was restored at last, usually keyed to the Gospel reading. And in order to allow each of the portraits of Christ provided by the individual evangelists to shine through, a three year system of readings was employed: A, the year of St. Matthew. B, the year of St. Mark. C, the year of St. Luke. St. John ruled during Eastertide in all three years and did a bit of fill in during the year of St. Mark, given the brevity of that Gospel. Further, the second reading was now allowed a bit more independence and the ancient practice of lecio continua allowed for huge swaths of the epistles to be heard. One last very noteworthy feature was the use of a longer Psalm selection to replace the typically shorter gradual and verse or tract between the readings.
The thought was to let the Word of God more richly and fully impact and shape the Church’s life, and who on earth can be against that? Rather excitedly but without any extended reflection or discussion, jurisdiction after jurisdiction followed Rome’s lead in ditching the ancient Western lectionary and adopting the three year. The Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Methodists. Soon, however, the niggling variations invited consideration of revising something that could be shared in common. Hence the Revised Common Lectionary. My own Synod’s three year system is clearly largely but not entirely in synch with that.
And yet… Are there any backward traffic lights around? One of the most astonishing to me is that despite the Church reading more Scripture in the assembly than ever before in our Western Churches, basic biblical literacy among our people seems to have plummeted to lows that would have been unthinkable a couple generations back You mention Abraham and Sarah, or David and Bathsheba? You know the blank stares that these names receive, and even from folks who are not strangers in church! And we won’t even ask them about Mephibosheth or Maher-Shallal-hashbaz!
We read more and yet we remember and know less. What gives? Maybe that old Latin proverb nailed it after all: Non multa sed multum. Not many, but much. More on that in a few minutes.
Now, the nearly universal triumph of the three-year series in actual use by a billion plus Christians alive right now might have suggested that the older, historic one year series was simply dead and buried, one of those multitudinous footnotes of abandoned practice that litter the ecclesiastic landscape. It had had deficiencies, of course. Luther himself once complained that the epistles seemed to have been selected by a lover of works, and that all the good gospel sections in Paul's writings had been given short shrift. It’s been famously noted that in the old series we never ever heard John 3:16, nor the account of the Prodigal Son.
But like Lazarus, not only is the stink of the historic series greatly exaggerated, but the thing pops back to life when no one expected it!
In Rome, Benedict XVI restores the old Tridentine Mass as “an extraordinary rite” (and you can read voices in the Roman Catholic press today that suggest that this extraordinary needs to be the basis for a new ordinary and to go back to the experiments of the 50's in bringing it into English!). This means not only the restoration of the Latin Mass with its ceremonies, but also the restored use of the historic lectionary that was an integral part of that rite!
Among the Anglicans, there is this growing “continuing” movement that is marked by a turn back toward the earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer with their version of the historic lectionary that tends to be an identical twin to the old Lutheran practice.
Among the Orthodox, we find a Western Rite persisting with a liturgy of St. Gregory following the Tridentine Mass with Orthodox adaptations and using the one year lectionary.
And last, but hopefully not least, among Lutherans, at least in my Synod, I think you can document a small but growing trend as more pastors and parishes adopt and become quite committed to the gentle revision of the older lectionary that appeared in LSB. This was possible because of the decision made by the lectionary committee to set the one year on a completely equal footing with the three year in all the resources of the LSB.
In the front of each of the Lectionary volumes that attend LSB, these words stand in the preface:
The Lectionary Committee of the LCMS Lutheran Hymnal Project began its work by examining past and present lectionaries to determine how and whether to revise the existing lectionaries in Lutheran Worship. Early in the process, the decision was made to recover and retain the "historic" lectionary, as used by Luther and subsequent generations of Lutherans and as included in The Lutheran Hymnal.
Although the Lectionary Committee acknowledged that relatively few LCMS congregations use the one-year lectionary, the committee concluded that such a lectionary should be included in the hymnal to serve both those who still customarily use it and those who may one day find their situation could best be served by the repetition inherent in this lectionary. Among the various reasons for retaining a one-year lectionary in Lutheran Service Book, the Lectionary Committee noted the following:
- We are an historic Church and acknowledge the value of what has been handed down to us.
- It is important to recognize the value of repetition. Given the increasing lack of biblical literacy within our society and even within the Church, there may be a need in the future for a one-year lectionary, with its annual repetition of key biblical texts.
- The one-year lectionary is unique in that there are a number of older resources that support it, including hymnody, sermons by Luther and others, etc.
Revisions to the one-year lectionary have been very minor. The historic Gospels remain intact. Likewise, all the historic Epistles have been included. In a few cases, however, alternate Epistles and Gospels have been provided. Because the historic lectionary did not have assigned Old Testament readings, the committee has taken greater freedom in choosing these texts. As with the three-year lectionary, the committee has attempted to choose Old Testament readings that relate closely to the Holy Gospel by way of typological or prophetic connection. In addition, the committee attempted to provide a balanced selection of the various genres of Old Testament readings (e.g., prophetic writings, historical narrative).
Full propers have been prepared for the one-year lectionary, including a psalm and verse of the day, expanded introits, and minimally revised Collects of the Day for each Sunday and festival. All of these propers are contained in the Lutheran Service Book Altar Book. pp.xiv,xv.
This was prescient. Thus, although Rome and the Western Rite Orthodox simply mandate the use of the old Tridentine lectionary in its Extraordinary Rite; and the continuing Anglicans tend to employ the lectionaries of the earlier Book of Common Prayer; the LSB sought to address gently the criticisms raised against the historic series and thus update it to be a series that has four readings per Sunday: first, psalm, epistle and gospel; that respected the basic structure of the older series by allowing the Gospels to key off and to retain the traditional collects and so forth. No John 3:16? But historically we read John 3:1–15 on Holy Trinity, why not add a couple more verses? No prodigal son? But we read from the first half of Luke 15 each Trinity 5. What if we allowed the option of reading the first three verses and then skipping to the end of the chapter? So it was sort of a best of the old and best of the new approach. But running through it all was the consciousness that repetition, after all, is the mother of learning and that THAT may have been the true key to biblical literacy in the Western Churches in the past!
On the anxiety that might arise about the amount of Scripture read if a one year series is adopted, a thought to consider: in Lutheranism, the Mass lectionary was never intended to bear the burden of being the entirety of a Christian’s Biblical reading - and so we have long had daily lectionaries. LSB follows in this tradition, but the resources have gone further than ever: Treasury (or its digital version: the PrayNow App), provide for reading great swaths of Scripture each year. Great resources for “more of the story” but again, built on yearly repetition of key texts (this pattern also is found in Lutheran sources from places like Magdeburg and is distinct from Calvinist or Anglican stress on “getting through” the Bible in the year - In Magdeburg, for instance, you read through certain Apocryphal books, but never read from Deuteronomy at all, the focus being on the narrative sections).
So, with a sturdy implementation of a daily lectionary to fill in the corners, if you will, the Mass lectionary provides a basic scaffolding from which to enfold the rest of the material. Loehe spoke of it like this:
He (the Lutheran preacher) rejoices in the ancient pericopes and would not, even if he could, base his sermon in the Divine Service on free texts or continuous portions of Holy Scripture instead of those pericopes. Preferably he keeps [as his sermon text] for the Divine Service the Gospels, and leaves the Epistles in their place in the order of service, and he will not become weary in preaching on the Gospels. As the people love to hear them, so to him they will become richer and fuller the more he speaks on them. He learns, the more he treats them, the great wisdom of the homilitician to create access through the known to the unknown and to show all the teachings of the church in the familiar texts. The person who switches the texts every year is not fit as a preacher of the people, let alone, one may say, of the church. That which is always different and new, without a connection to the familiar texts, makes it hard for people to understand, but each person easily and gladly accepts new thoughts when they appear as freshly recognized depths of ancient wisdom. —Loehe, Three Books, p. 117.
Finally, think of those resources mentioned in the intro to the Lectionary for LSB:
We have the treasure trove of the old Postilla (the sermon collections)
Postilla of Luther (House and Church - house much better than Church)
Postilla of Gerhard (Repristination Press), Loehe (not in English, sadly),
selections from Postilla of Walther
We have the treasure trove of old Lutheran hymns often written toward these pericopes.
For example, for the Anglicans and the Lutherans, the first Sunday in Advent was always the Entrance into Jerusalem from Matthew’s Gospel. Think of the hymns that associate this event, then, with the season of Advent:
LSB 334 - Gerhardt's O Lord, How Shall I Meet You -
Your Zion strews before You green boughs and fairest palms...
LSB 335 - the Danish "O Bride of Christ Rejoice"
A humble beast He rides,
Yet as a King presides,
Though not arrayed in splendor
He makes the grave surrender.
Hosanna, praise, and glory!
Our King we bow before thee!
LSB 343 - Prepare the Royal Highway
God's people see Him coming:
Your own eternal king!
Palm branches strew before Him!
Spread garments! Shout and sing!
LSB 350 Come, Thou Precious Ransom, Come
My hosannas and my palms
Graciously receive, I pray Thee;
How much sense do these make without the traditional Gospel for Advent I keying off Advent??
Without the celebration of Gaudete, what exactly IS the point of that rose (pink) candle in the Advent wreath?
Day by Day (daily devos arranged from Luther's writings by Anglicans shortly after WWII)
God Grant It! (daily devos from Walther that follow the historic one year for weekly themes)
Think of connecting our folks again to the great texts of the Bach Cantatas!
FB groups on the historic lectionary (The One-ders)
So there are numerous pluses and a few cons, but none insurmountable. I’ll let Dr. Piepkorn have the final word. When this whole thing was just beginning to loom on the horizon, and not long before his death, he wrote:
“I confess that I share the view of those that feel that world Lutheran ties are more important than American solidarity. Quite apart from this, however, I have basic misgivings about the use of a three-year cycle of pericopes. With the irregular attendance of many of our people at divine worship and with the general lack of preparation for the service on the part of many of the worshippers that do come, I feel that a three-year cycle or even a two-year cycle would mean that many of our people would in the end be less acquainted with the Sacred Scriptures than they are now." – A. C. Piepkorn, The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, p. 13.
Which is to say: he noted the backwards lights and suggested not getting on the highway in that direction.
Comments, questions, insights, or just out and out disagreements?